Diary of a touring musician: days one and two
Being full-time musicians we love playing live! With our new album STARLITE.ONE we took to the road in September and October for our UK headline tour. This is part two of the warts-and-all-account.
If you happened upon this series for the first time, to understand the context we suggest you check out the other articles by heading over to:
When going on tour it is not a good idea to leave things to the last minute. Suzy always likes to plan three steps ahead and there is also a need for clarity and considered organisation. That just didn’t happen this time and on the day before we left for our UK tour, major preparations were still underway.
On a physical level, we were in pretty good shape having religiously attended the gym and watching the calories, which is a good job because the new stage outfits - German fighter pilot suits - are very unforgiving. We were undecided as to what to wear and they only arrived a couple of days before leaving.
The original plan was to arrive in the UK on Monday, September 25th as we wanted to have our eyes tested and new frames/lenses ordered ready for the tour and make sure we were well rested.
Jez Levy - Simon’s brother from another mother - owns the amazing Eyes on St Albans and is the only choice for our eyewear. We love glasses and couldn’t wait to see the new styles from Kirk & Kirk.
A combination of our new touring rig with all the necessary sound pre-production work, plus the creation of the visual concept videos for our exclusive multi-media presentation meant that we had been working 16-hour days right up until the moment we packed the Van of Rock - we set off from Portugal on the Monday morning - the day we had planned to be in the UK. What is it they say about plans again?
Our current Van of Rock is the smallest version of the Volkswagen Crafter (L3H2), in white. Black is normally our go-to colour but when it comes to transportation we have always opted for white as it affords you a certain amount of anonymity - when you rock up to a venue people don’t know who you are, what trade you work in and whether or not you are the best avoided very angry ‘white van man/woman’ delivering 200 kg of rapidly defrosting cuttlefish.
When in the UK we try to do lots of shit that can’t be done in Europe and hence took a little more with us than what we needed. Simon needed his Gartone 3x10” Vibrato King amplifier servicing and the Supertone Matamp 120 revoicing.
Wine in Portugal is of excellent quality and very good value so we decided to take a selection with us for drinking and as gifts.
There were no suitable flight cases left so Suzy thought it would be a great idea to put 24 bottles into one of our white IKEA recycling bins for the trip. What was the problem?
As Simon protested and in hindsight, Suzy later discovered, this oddly shaped plastic container with no lid proved to be the most annoying part of our cargo as it just didn’t fit or pack neatly with all the other cases - the notorious and highly annoying ‘box of inconvenience’ - more about that later.
We have a sturdy flight case for all our merchandise but the question is always just how much do you take with you?
We always produce our albums on 180g vinyl and knew that many of our supporters were waiting to buy directly from us at the concerts. Always a sticky question but we erred on the side of caution loading more than we expected to sell. We would certainly be crying in our latte if it sold out.
We ended up loading the Van of Rock in the dark at 2200, checking off everything against the ATA Carnet as we went along. This wasn’t the plan but we kept our cool.
Apart from our usual amps and guitars, we also had a bunch of synthesisers plus Hugo’s six-piece SONOR drum set and with our luggage - it was packed to the rafters.
The back of a van on tour is a hallowed space and is only meant for flight cases and equipment of rock but by the time we had finished loading, it looked like the back of a removal van.
The final thing was our box of goodies for the trip which we left in the fridge overnight. This time no Haribo, nuts or snacks, just a bag of very fresh and healthy fruit and mineral water.
We are a close family unit and always dread leaving our girls Bobby and Hummock, preferring to take them on the road with us - but this time it would have been too much and practically impossible as there was not enough room.
We are really fortunate as just ten minutes from our home is the Hotel Canino da Quinta de Santa Maria run by our wonderful vet Rita and is the best place they could possibly stay. As we drove away there were knots in our stomachs and tears in our eyes. Onwards.
When you are psyched up and full of enthusiasm we always find getting a good distance on day one is best and so our target was Saint Jean de Luz in the very southwest of France where we had stayed before.
If you need to get somewhere as expediently as possible in Southwestern Europe, the only option is to use toll roads.
On our last trip through France, we opted for a non-toll trip but ended up with 150 euros in speeding fines. Cameras here are run by private companies and they are everywhere; hiding behind cabbages in fields at night - everywhere!
Major routes in Portugal and France are almost exclusively toll, Spain less so. The costs vary dramatically with Spain being the cheapest, followed by Portugal but the leader in emptying your bank account is France - but more of this later.
Sat-nav assumes you are travelling at the maximum speed limit for the whole journey. Balancing both time and fuel economy, the best speed to travel in the Van of Rock is around 100 km/h and most of the routes were between 120 and 130 km/h and we constantly lagged behind the calculated ETA.
Of course, we needed to stop off for lunch and chose a city en route just inside the Spanish border, but as we had set off later than anticipated and the bizarre one-hour time difference when you cross the border (Portugal shares the same timezone as the UK, Spain is always +1 ), we arrived at 1600 local.
We parked the van outside the city walls and walked up into the Old Town through an archway in the 12th-century city walls. It could be very touristy, but thankfully it had managed to retain its ancient charm.
Usually, we would have researched a suitable eatery before arriving but this time just wandered around into the main square only to find the good-looking place with a great menu had just closed its kitchen.
We walked back to the gate and ate at La Cocina de Jose which fortunately was open all day. Suzy had a great Chicken salad and Simon a seafood Paella, but being used to superb Portuguese offerings the Spanish wine didn’t quite hit the spot. Coffee then off!
It’s a bloody long way to France. The first leg to Ciudad Rodrigo took around 3:45. The second around 5:45 and arrived at the B&B Hotel after midnight.
During the journey, we had a call from The Witham in Barnard Castle where we were scheduled to play. “Ticket sales are not good, can you help with the marketing please and pump some stuff out on social media”. If you read the first part of the story you will see we had spent a lot of time, effort and money doing just that. They had approached us to play in 2022 and following a committee decision, the fee was agreed plus rider (which includes accommodation) and our agent had sorted the contract - do they want us to do the promotion as well??
Conversely, we had emails from other venues to say that the gigs were sold out. Strange that…
Suzy drove for a few hours on the motorways and then handed back to Simon before reaching Donostia San Sebastian as there the motorway became steep and torturous. The Basque drivers always seemed to be on an emergency mission to save the universe.
The last few kilometres of the journey was toll madness. You have to pay! Pay to leave Spain. Pay to enter France - everyone wanted your money; automated highwaymen just lacking the flintlocks.
The first hotel
B&B hotels are cheap, cheerful, clean but soulless, frequented by travelling workers and tourists.
We had stayed at the particular hotel before and knew of the tricky entrance but this time were confronted with a car park that was totally rammed with trucks, vans and cars. We were tired and a little grouchy but eventually parked in a space that wasn’t a space hoping that we didn’t block anyone in or towed.
We were ‘assisted’ by a random Dutch guy with a dog that always seemed to be there - no matter when you went in or out.
As we are totally independent, we were not sure if we could stretch to fund the printing of t-shirts for the tour. It’s already tough meeting Vinyl and CD production costs, especially as prices have escalated - but at the last minute, we thought it could be done so on the Saturday before we left, Simon emailed the main man at Razamataz, who along with many huge international touring acts, manufacture all our t-shirts, hoodies and caps.
It was the weekend and expected a reply on Monday morning, but 20 minutes later we had a response - which shows the kind of excellent operation they are. Efficient and very customer-focused, regardless of the size of the order.
Still with a few bits and pieces to organise Simon ordered the Starlite.One boarding passes for delivery on Friday ready for our first gig of the tour.
As expected Razamataz contacted us first on Monday morning but as we were travelling, couldn’t reply. Before bed, Simon placed the order for the mech.
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We decided to take it relatively easy over the next couple of days and planned on stopping off in Bordeaux for lunch. Before we left the hotel Simon located a cool-looking place just outside the city and we decided to stop for our morning coffee along the road, which we should know by now is never a good idea as neither of us function properly before midday, even with a few espressos.
Mindful of our budget, we also filled the van with fuel before we left Spain as France is VERY expensive. There are some nifty comparison websites you can reference to make sure you get the best value for your money.
ô sens 60 is located in an un-salubrious area, next to factories and garages but when we entered it was packed with white-collar French workers, just having lunch. Coming from Portugal via Spain the first thing that hit us was the fact that hardly any of the clients were drinking alcohol. In our adopted home country almost everyone had a glass or two of wine/beer with their lunch.
This was a more modern concept and not strictly Plat du Jour. Not knowing and in our enthusiasm, we ended up ordering one of each course which cost us a fortune. France is horrendously expensive.
Just before lunch, we had a message from The Pioneer Club in St. Albans requesting a Zoom call which was our first gig of the tour on Friday night. As we were travelling we thought it best to do it after lunch as we had wi-fi at the restaurant.
We ordered a beer, connected and were greeted by Danny Claire (whom we had never heard of before) and George Batten who had booked us. The first thing Danny - who was now the new guy running the club - said was “Don’t worry everything is cool we are just looking at the final details”. The conversation was jovial and we discussed, get-in times and sound-checks plus the technical aspects as we had sent the specifications to them a few weeks before. All good except one thing that threw us a little, George asked us how we got the gig when he was the one that booked us. Strange.
As usual, we were the last to leave the restaurant and although we felt that the owners were a little irritated at our slow lunch habits, they cheered up when we asked them for a photo!
The toll - again
Our next stop was Beaumont-la-Ronce and we made the trip from Bordeaux mellifluously - apart from the tolls - which cost us on this day alone over 110 Euros.
We had left the A10 just after Tours and when we saw the fee flashing in front of us at the toll booth we couldn’t believe it. How much? We are not driving a lorry? There must be some computer malfunction.
Starlite pressed the buzzer on the intercom to talk to someone... It was like the Drive Through sketch from the first Tenacious D album - although Suzy sadly refrained from telling the attendant to shove the ticket up their ass.
The turret hotel
We hadn’t had time to book any accommodation for that night or decide how far we would drive that day either - we were literally just living in 24-hour blocks.
It’s a strange liberating feeling when you are on the road with nowhere to stay. It can feel a little vulnerable but at the same time quite exciting to embrace the spontaneous unknown.
We managed to get an excellent late deal on a room at La Tour de rêves just off the beaten track through Bookings.com.
It was very dark, as only the French countryside can be when we arrived at the location but we just couldn’t find the house.
Suzy called the number to be answered by a man called Phillipe who couldn’t speak a word of English and deployed her best schoolgirl French (confused with many Portuguese and the odd German word). It took 10 minutes but they managed to navigate us to the house - which had a different name on the sign to the place listed on the booking. We found out later they weren’t expecting us as they hadn’t seen the booking!!
It was now around 2030 and after driving down a narrow country road we were greeted by Phillipe and his wife waving us in with a flashlight and parked outside a characterful and unusual annexe which was to be our refuge for the night.
The place was small on two floors; the upper of which was the bedroom in a delightful conical turret, and the ground floor had a kitchen with a shower and basin under the stairs bathroom and a separate toilet - all really well put together.
Our jovial hosts had already eaten dinner and were mid-flow entertaining some friends who happened to be staying outside in their retro camper van so, as you would expect being in France, they were a little merry.
Phillipe showed us around, proudly demonstrating the flashing multi-coloured LED lighting around the bed - which made it seem like some crazy Fillapino whorehouse - and told us where to find the wi-fi code which we misinterpreted. After a few minutes of examining all the routers, we had to call him again to discover the code was not literally under the TV as we had translated but in ‘the drawer’ under the flat-screen TV.
We had been on the back foot for weeks and decided to relax and open one of the bottles of wine we had brought with us and book the ferry for tomorrow - another thing we literally had not had time to do beforehand.
Whilst looking around for the best deal prices went from £90 to £175. Simon feverishly cleared cookies and swapped browsers only to find the same horror. What a nightmare!! AHHHH! Finally, after a load of stress, he came upon Irish Ferries which still held the £90 fare. So a word of warning. Always book your channel crossing more than 24 hours in advance.
The bed that night was really comfy with a slight chill in the room and we were grateful for a safe place to rest our heads and not have to worry about the van. It’s a wonderful feeling when you are snuggled up in bed warm as toast in a random place - you just never know what’s around the corner.
Next up, our ferry crossing, meeting friends and a very unwelcome surprise…